Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Chuck Wagon

Last Saturday morning while in Fort Davis, Texas, my friends and I stopped in at The Chuck Wagon restaurant for breakfast. A relatively new restaurant, The Chuck Wagon had reasonable prices, great food and friendly, attentive service. I ordered the breakfast burrito with eggs, sausage, potatoes, onion and tomatoes. It was scrumptious. In addition to his breakfast order, Bobby asked for a side of sausage gravy, which he generously allowed me to sample. It was homemade cream gravy just like my momma makes!

On the paper place mats was printed the history of the chuck wagon, which I found quite interesting. Charles Goodnight, one of the most prosperous cattlemen of the American West, is credited as the inventor of the chuck wagon. He and his partner, Oliver Loving, prepared to take a herd of 2,000 Longhorn cattle from Belknap in northern Texas to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, which became known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail, and on to Denver, Colorado in 1866. Goodnight purchased a government wagon and reconfigured it to meet the supply needs of the journey, having it rebuilt in bois d’arc, the toughest wood available.

The bois d'arc tree is also known as Osage orange, bodark, horse apple, hedge ball, Osage apple, mock orange, yellow wood, palo de arco, by its Indian name ayac and by its scientific name Maclura pomifera. What makes the bois d' arc different from most other trees is the quality of the wood, which is noted for its hardness, flexibility, durability, and resistance to contact with moisture and soil. Hunt County, Texas historian, Walworth Harrison, described the wood as "ever lasting," because of its immunity to rot.

My friend, Bobby, who also went along on our trip, says that if you put horse apples all around your house, you won't have any spiders. That's good news for a woman like me who suffers from mild arachnophobia!

The purpose of the chuck wagon was a logical one. A large cattle drive required men, and men required food. This redesigned, sturdy wagon fit the bill as a mobile kitchen. The distinguishing feature of the wagon was the sloping box on the rear with a hinged lid that lowered to become a cook's worktable. The box was fitted to the width of the wagon and contained shelves and drawers for holding food and utensils. To the cowboys, "chuck" was food, so the box was called a chuck box and the wagon became known as a “chuck wagon”.

This brings me to another thought, unrelated to chuck wagons. If food was known as “chuck”, then it finally makes sense to me why I’ve heard people use the word “upchuck” in place of “vomit”. I learn something new every day!

Cowboys ate all their meals around the chuck wagon, but the wagon also served as the social center, cattle drive headquarters and recreational spot. Many tall tales and musical numbers evolved around the chuck wagon campfire.

In many ways the cook or "cookie" was the most important member of the drive, and he generally got paid better than the other men. The cook drove the chuck wagon ahead of the herd and was responsible for selecting campsites in the evenings and stopovers for the noonday meal. Meals generally consisted of beef, beans, and sourdough biscuits along with generous cups of strong black coffee. The cook used a large "dutch oven," a cast iron pot for cooking biscuits and the occasional cobbler. The difference between an ordinary cook and a good cook often meant the difference between happy cowboys and grumbling cowboys, although the smart cowboy would avoid complaining within earshot of the cook for fear of being pressed into service. Cookie ruled his kitchen and not so much as a cup of coffee was consumed without his permission.

Wagons Ho, Y’all!

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